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Posted on 28/06/12

Column Writing in India

By Dr. Mrinal Chatterjee
Media Hive News Network

A column is a regular feature or series of articles in a newspaper, magazine, or the like, usually having a readily identifiable heading and the byline of the writer or editor, that reports or comments upon a particular field of interest, as politics, theatre, or etiquette, or which may contain letters from readers, answers to readers' queries, etc.(1)

Column writing is very different from other forms of writing because unlike straight news and feature writing, columns have dedicated readerships. A columnist develops a following because his readers feel they can gain knowledge, insight and entertainment from reading his writings.

It is difficult to pinpoint the year in which the first column was published in a newspaper. However, going by the origin of the meaning of the word ‘column’, this sense of "matter written for a newspaper" dates from 1785.(2)

David Psutka writes in his article (3):
Columns had existed prior to the 1920’s but dealt mainly with humorous topics, literature or local issues, or in many cases overt partisanship, as papers from before the First World War were commonly controlled by political parties.

During the 19th and early 20th centuries, letters to the editor acted as pseudo-columns as it was common to regularly run letters from readers who were especially eloquent, engaging or representative of a constituency of interest. “A lot of the early copy that bore the marks of column writing was in the form of letters,” wrote historian Sam Riley in his book, The American Newspaper Columnist.

By the late 1800’s, some papers were paying for these submissions, a subtle foreshadowing of the ostensibly modern notion of the ‘citizen journalist.’ Many of these early ‘letter writers’ were women, like Fannie Fern, who appeared regularly in The New York Ledger and Mary Clemmer Ames whose “A Woman’s Letter from Washington” ran in The New York Independent from 1866-1884.

Leading up to World War I, the journalism industry had resolutely espoused the principle of objectivity, or as French novelist Honore de Balzac put it, “veneration of the fact.” The job of reporters was to uncover and recount facts with impartiality, while opinions were left to politicians and editorial pages. News was considered “an independent substance, composed of facts; opinion as something else entirely, something slightly disreputable,” wrote academic Mitchell Stephens in A History of News. But as the industry began to acknowledge the subjective nature of journalism and the importance of accompanying analysis and explanation, the column grew in popularity.

Our modern notion of the opinion column – as a forum for argument, analysis and explanation – was born out of the global-political fallout of the First World War. Publishers and editors at the time felt that the post-war climate was uniquely complex and warranted more analytical, opinion-based and explanatory journalism, which was a philosophical departure from the industry’s existing mandate that emphasized a detached recounting of facts.

“The political column was, among other things, journalism’s most important institutional acknowledgement that there were no longer facts, only individually constructed interpretations,” wrote historian Michael Schudson in his book Discovering the News: A Social History of America Newspapers.

After its initial acceptance, the opinion column grew in popularity throughout the 1930’s. “The political column was the newspaper sensation of the thirties,” argued Schudson, as early columnists like Walter Lippmann were being syndicated in hundreds of papers and new publications like Time magazine were making waves with a style that blended fact and opinion.

With the arrival of television in the late 1940's and early 1950's, print publications had to rethink their approach in an effort to remain relevant in view of television’s superior news-breaking ability and entertainment value. Out of necessity, journalism became more analytical and opinionated. “With broadcast newscasts now routinely beating them to breaking news, newspapers increasingly are emphasizing news features and more analytical approaches,” wrote Stephens.

However, there was a reverse flow too. Newspaper columnists of the 1930s and 1940s, such as Franklin Pierce Adams (aka FPA), Nick Kenny, John Crosby, Jimmie Fidler, Louella Parsons, Drew Pearson, Ed Sullivan and Walter Winchell, achieved a celebrity status and used their syndicated columns as a springboard to move into radio and television. In some cases, such as Winchell and Parsons, their radio programs were quite similar in format to their newspaper columns.

While the technological advances of the 1950's forced an emphasis on column writing out of a concern for survival, the civic unrest and increasingly press-savvy politicians of the 1960's demanded a more adversarial and critical style of journalism, as citizens grew suspicious of the professional class. Newspaper columns provided an outlet for this distrust, a sentiment also evidenced by the advent of investigative journalism television programs.

The arrival of the internet has been the most salient event of the past few decades and continues to shape the practice and relevance of column writing, writes Psutka.” Publications have been undercut yet again in their ability to break news, and are confronted with a torrent of new competition from blogs and websites. As with the advent of television, many of the changes seem driven by survival instead of self-improvement, but the end result may very well be the same; an increased emphasis on opinion-based journalism.”

In USA an association of column writers (National Society of Newspaper Columnists(4)) have been formed in 1977.

History of Column Writing in India

Regular columns have appeared in newspapers in India almost from the beginning. In fact newspapers in the early era carried less news and more views, because of two simple reasons: one, it was difficult to collect news and two, the editor/publisher wanted to the readers to know his/her view. The concept of news as an objective rendition of facts emerged much later. Even when it emerged, columns never lost its attractions in India, because of the people who used to write to propagate their views.

Community leaders, social activists and freedom fighters used to write their viewpoints and exhorted people to follow their path. Mahatma Gandhi used to write regular columns in all the newspapers he edited and/or published. So much so, that these newspapers were more regarded as ‘viewspaper’. Gandhiji in fact used this term (viewspaper) to describe the Tribune.

This trend continued even after the independence. It probably has something to do with the intrinsic nature of the Indians, deftly described by Amartya Sen in his book The Argumentative Indian. Sen argues in this book that in India there has been a long tradition of questioning the truth of ideas through discussion and dialogue. This has become a part of our national character. Columns provided an opportunity to talk, deliberate, and argue on any issue- from politics to business to films and sports.

Columns began to appear on all issues and subjects. From humorous take on current events and issues to highly philosophical discourse on religion, from gossip to career counselling, from practical help to joke and banter- columns of all variety began to appear. Besides the journalists, people from other professions- academicians, politicians, film directors, players, etc. started writing regular columns. Some of the columns became very popular conferring the columnist a cult status.

Like it happened in USA newspapers in India started putting more emphasis on analysis of news and events as 24x7 news channels started telecasting live news from the action spot beginning early 1990s. Newspapers started emphasizing on ‘why’ and ‘how’ part of the news even as television concentrated more on the ‘what’ part.

However there began considerable over lap as television channels also wanted to ‘discuss’ issues and events. Many of the newspaper columnists also went to television. It provided them greater visibility, which was encashed by the newspapers. It was a win-win situation for both.

With internet making a rapid entry, the columnists also took their columns to the new media- providing them even more visibility and interactivity. New Media also provided an opportunity to all budding writers to post their write ups on net- through blogs. Although most of the blogs are not read by many, there are interesting blogs which are read by millions. Some of the bloggers have become very popular, especially in niche areas.

Here is a list of columnists, across genres, who were (most of them are) writing incessant and interesting columns.

Prem Bhatia (11 Aug, 1911- 8 May, 1995): Journalist, newspaper editor (Tribune, Indian Express, Times of India), political commentator, and diplomat. He was the author of three books: All my Yesterdays, Indian Ordeal in Africa, Of Many Pastures. Witness to History, a compilation of Prem Bhatia’s writings was published in 1997. This was followed in 2002 by another: Reflections along a political journey (5).

Nikhil Chakravartty (1913-1998) strayed into journalism from politics. What distinguished him from many other members of the media fraternity was his unobtrusive but skilful use of journalism as a tool in the furtherance of political, social and economic causes dear to him. His all-consuming passion was to propel India towards a secular, just and humane social order. In his writings, he focussed on this but neither preached nor pontificated.

Rather, he indicated patiently and repeatedly the direction in which free India should move to give its citizens the full benefits of democracy, freedom and justice. For a man who displayed in his writings an extraordinary passion for and commitment to these attributes of the democratic and civilised way of life, he was incredibly tolerant of the opposite point of view. His commitment to the journalism of courage came to the fore when he wrote fearlessly in Mainstream against the emergency, even risking the publication's closure, at a time when censorship inhibited free expression.

Khwaja Ahmad Abbas (7 June 1914 – 1 June 1987), popularly known as K. A. Abbas, was a film director, novelist, screenwriter, and a journalist in the Urdu, Hindi and English languages. His column ‘Last Page’ holds the distinction of being one of the longest-running columns in the history of Indian journalism. The column began in 1935, at Bombay Chronicle, and when it closed, it moved to the Blitz, where it continued till his death in 1987(6).

Khushwant Singh (born 2 February 1915) is a prominent Indian novelist and journalist. Singh's weekly column, "With Malice towards One and All", carried by several Indian and foreign newspapers, is among the most widely-read columns in the country.

 

Amita Malik (1921 - 20 February 2009) was described by Time magazine as India's "most prominent film and television critic" and "India's best known cinema commentator". She began her career at All India Radio, Lucknow in 1944 and later wrote for many print publications including The Statesman, The Times of India, the Indian Express and Pioneer. Her syndicated column "Sight and Sound" has been published in virtually every leading Indian newspaper at various times.

Kuldeep Nair (born 14 August 1923) writes columns and op-eds for over 80 newspapers in 14 languages including The Daily Star, The Sunday Guardian, The News (Pakistan), Express Tribune (Pakistan), Dawn (Pakistan). His column “Between the Lines” has been compiled into a book.

 

TJS (Thayil Jacob Sony) George (born 7 May 1928) has achieved distinction internationally as an author, political columnist and biographer with a series of major books. He is currently the Editorial Advisor of The New Indian Express. Few media persons have experienced the romance of journalism in as great a measure as T. J. S. George has. His journey from the newsroom of S. Sadanand’s Free Press Journal to the top of the profession was eventful.

While heading a Bihar daily, he earned the displeasure of the chief minister and became the first editor to be charged with sedition in free India. During a stint abroad, the highlight of which was the founding of Asiaweek in Hong Kong with himself as its Editor, he incurred the wrath of some of Southeast Asia’s rulers. He continues his fight against social injustice, corruption and political anarchies through his columns in Indian Express.

Behram Contractor (1930 – 9 April 2001), also known as Busybee worked at the The Free Press Journal, Times of India (Bombay), and Midday before founding his own newspaper The Afternoon Despatch and Courier (better known as Afternoon) in 1985. Contractor continued to write articles for the Times of India and the Midday under the pen name Busybee even while serving as editor of his own paper, and his column ‘Round and About’ was one of the most loved in the city. Contractor also wrote "Eating Out" which featured one of the best Mumbai restaurants giving a glimpse of many Indian and international cuisines.

Inder Malhotra (born 1930), former editor of The Times of India and a former Guardian correspondent in India has written a biography of Indira Gandhi and is currently a syndicated columnist for 30 newspapers and journals.(7)

 

Soli Sorabjee (born 9 March 1930) He served as Solicitor-General of India from 1977 to 1980. He was appointed Attorney-General of India on 7 April 1998, a post he held until 2004. He is very active in Human Rights and Press Freedom domain and writes extensively on these subjects.

Prem Shankar Jha (born 22 December 1938), Managing Editor of Financial World, is also a columnist with Tehelka magazine. In 1966 Jha joined the Hindustan Times as an assistant editor, in 1969 he moved to the Times of India, where he was the deputy editor of The Economic Times. He then joined the Financial Express as its editor before moving back to the Times of India in 1981 as its economic editor. In 1986 he re-joined the Hindustan Times as its editor. He has been a columnist for The Hindu, The Hindustan Times, the Business Standard and Tehelka.

T. V. R Shenoy (born 1939) had served as the Editor of the weekly news magazine The Week and Sunday Mail and held various posts in Indian Express and Malayala Manorama. Shenoy contributes to several national and international newspapers, website and magazines on the issues ranging from national politics, economy, social issues, international affairs to current affairs.

Dr. Sunil Kothari (born 1940 ) was a dance critic of the Times of India group of publications and wrote for the Times of India for 40 years. A leading dance historian, scholar, author and critic of Indian classical dances, Dr Sunil Kothari has to his credit more than 12 books on Indian classical dance forms and allied subjects including definitive works on Bharata Natyam, Odissi, Kathak, Kuchipudi, Chhau Dances of India, edited volumes on 'RASA', 'Damaru', photo biographies of legendary dancers Uday Shankar and Rukmini Devi, edited volume on 'New Directions In Indian dance' etc. Dr Kothari has held several positions: Uday Shankar Professor and Chair , Dance Department, Rabindra Baharti Univeristy, Kolkata: Dean and Professor, School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawharlal Nehru Univerisity, New Delhi; National Porfesor of Dance, Under UGC scheme for two years. He is also a full-fledged Chartered Accountant.(8)

Swaminathan S. Anklesaria Aiyar (born 12 October 1942) writes a popular weekly column titled "Swaminomics" in the Times of India, where he discusses economic and political issues pertaining to India and the world. Aiyar has prepared several reports and papers for the World Bank. In 1976-85 and 1990–98, he was also the India correspondent of The Economist. A popular columnist and TV commentator, Swami has been called "India's leading economic journalist" by Stephen Cohen of the Brookings Institution. He has two books to his credit: Towards Globalisation (1992) and Swaminomics: Escape from the Benevolent Zookepers (2008).

Gurcharan Das (born October 3, 1943) is an author, commentator and public intellectual. He is the author of The Difficulty of Being Good: On the subtle art of Dharma which looks at the epic, Mahabharata from a different angle. His international bestseller, India Unbound, is a narrative account of India from Independence to the global information age, and has been published in many languages and filmed by BBC. He is a regular columnist for six Indian newspapers in English, Hindi, Telugu and Marathi, and he writes periodic pieces for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, Foreign Affairs, and Newsweek.

Jug Suraiyya (born 1946) is a journalist, author and columnist. He is best known as a satirist and columnist. His columns ‘Jugular Vein’ and ‘Second Opinion’ has become very popular. Khushwant Singh has referred to Suraiya as "our own Art Buchwald". He is a writer distinguished for satire, wit and humour in his writings. Suraiya reflects on his personal reminiscences while drawing astounding parallels of some of the most famous personalities or gently touching at the absurdities which have become part and parcel of our lives.

Shobhaa De (born 7 January 1948) began her career in journalism in 1970. She founded and edited three magazines – Stardust, Society, and Celebrity. Shobhaa De is one of India’s top best-selling authors. All her 17 books have topped the charts and created records. She runs four weekly columns in mainstream newspapers, including the Times of India and Asian Age.

Praful Bidwai (born 1949) is an Leftist political analyst and commentator, a social science researcher, and an activist on issues of peace, global justice, human rights and environmental protection. His journalistic career spans four decades. His first notable work in journalism was as a columnist for the "Economic and Political Weekly", beginning in 1972. He then worked for magazines and newspapers including "Business India", "Financial Express" and "The Times of India" between 1981 and 1993, eventually becoming its Senior Editor. He wrote analytical and investigative articles on themes including politics and political economy; economic policy and industrialisation strategies; international relations; energy, the environment and sustainable development; religion, ethnicity and politics; social conflict, communalism and nationalism; science and technology; and nuclear weapons disarmament and peace. Bidwai is currently a columnist whose articles are published regularly in the Hindustan Times, Frontline, Rediff.com, and other outlets. He has also been published in The Guardian (London), The Nation (New York), Le Monde Diplomatique (Paris), and Il Manifesto (Rome).

Tavleen Singh (born 1950) worked as a journalist in many newspapers. Her column in The Indian Express was ‘the first political column to be written by a woman’.

M J (Mobashar Jawed) Akbar (born 21 January 1951) is a leading Indian journalist and author. He has written several non-fiction books, including Byline ( A compilation of his write up in his column bearing the same title. New Delhi: Chronicle Books, 2003), a biography of Jawaharlal Nehru titled Nehru: The Making of India, a book on Kashmir titled Kashmir: Behind the Vale, Riot After Riot and India: The Siege Within. He also authored The Shade of Swords, a cohesive history of jihad. Akbar's recent published book is Blood Brothers.

Swapan Dasgupta (born 3 October 1955) is a senior Indian journalist. At various points in his career, he has held senior editorial posts at The Statesman, The Daily Telegraph, The Times of India, The Indian Express and most recently India Today, where he was Managing Editor till 2003. He has been published in The Pioneer, The Telegraph, Dainik Jagran, The Times of India, The New Indian Express, Outlook, The Free Press Journal and several other newspapers and magazines.

Maneka Gandh (born 26 August 1956) is a politician, animal rights activist, environmentalist, former model and widow of Sanjay Gandhi. She has been a minister in four governments, and has authored a number of books in the areas of etymology, law and animal welfare. She writes regular columns in several newspapers and periodicals on environment and animal rights.

Bachi Karkaria (born 1958) has served as an editor at The Times of India. She is best known for her satirical column called Erratica in the newspaper and as the author of the best selling title Dare To Dream: A Life of M.S. Oberoi. She also writes a relationships advice column called Giving Gyan for Mumbai Mirror, a city tabloid for the Times of India group.

Santosh Desai (born 1961) works in corporate sector and writes columns in many newspapers and periodicals. His popular column “City City Bang Bang” looks at contemporary Indian society from an everyday vantage point. It covers issues big and small, tends where possible to avoid judgmental positions, and tries instead to understand what makes things the way they are.

Chetan Bhagat (born 22 April 1974) writes op-ed columns for English and Hindi newspapers, including The Guardian, The Times of India and Dainik Bhaskar, focusing on youth, career and issues based on national development.

India has far too many columnists across different languages in far too many genres to be fitted in any kind of list. Every language, every subject or genre has its celebrity columnist. Many senior journalists write columns and anchor television shows on political and social issues.

The Sunday New Indian Express carry several columns by senior journalists (Prabhu Chawla: Power and Politics, Shankar Aiyer: The Third Eye, V. Sudarshan: BlankPoint, Ravi Shankar: Provocateur).

There are columns on almost every subject. Sanjeev Kapur, the celebrated chef writes regular columns on food, cooking and recipe and presents television shows. Retired sportspersons like Sunil Gavaskar, Ravi Shastri, Kapil Dev, Baichung Bhutia write columns on cricket and football.

This trend is growing in film and entertainment domain too. Many retired bureaucrats, technocrats and educationists write columns on their field of expertise. J.S.Rajput, former Director of the NCERT writes regularly on Education. Bhaskar Ghosh writes columns on media and communication. So does Sevanti Ninan. Jayati Ghosh writes on Economics.
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References:

(1 )http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/column

(2) http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/column

(3) Column writing and the internet revolution. Posted in 2009.   http://www.journalism.ryerson.ca/grad/124/

(4) http://www.columnists.com

(5) http://www.prembhatiatrust.com

(6) K.A. Abbas was the maker of important Hindi films such as Saat Hindustani (1969) and Do Boond Pani (1972), both of which won the National Film Award for Best Feature Film on National Integration, Palme d'Or nominated (Cannes Film Festival) Pardesi (1957) and Shehar Aur Sapna (1963), which won the National Film Award for Best Feature Film. As a screenplay writer, K A Abbas is considered one of pioneers of Indian parallel or neo-realistic cinema, having penned films like the Palme d'Or winner at the Cannes Film Festival, Neecha Nagar (1946), Jagte Raho, Dharti Ke Lal, Awara, Saat Hindustani and Naya Sansar. Apart from this, he wrote the best of Raj Kapoor films, Awaara, Shri 420, Mera Naam Joker, Bobby and Henna.

(7) http://mylaw.net/Article/Inder_Malhotra/

(8) http://www.sunilkothari.com/
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(The author, a journalist turned media academician presently heads the eastern India campus of Indian Institute of Mass Communication (IIMC) located at Dhenkanal, Odisha. He writes regular columns in English and Odia in print and web publications and hosts television shows. He can be contacted at mrinaliimc@yahoo.in)

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